Debate: Advertising is the best way to keep the internet free and open

Posted on: Wednesday 29 January 2020 | By IAB UK

The IAB's latest contribution to The Debating Group, who have been hosting debates in the House of Commons since 1975

'Advertising is the best way to keep the internet free and open.’ This was the motion on the table at the latest Debating Group, sponsored by IAB UK, with speakers including Microsoft Advertising's UK MD Ravleen Beeston and NewsGuard’s MD for Europe Anna-Sophie Harling - both of whom were arguing for the motion. 

Against was The Guardian’s Head of Public Policy Matt Rogerson and Professor Paul Bernal, who lectures in IT, Intellectual Property & Media Law at the University of East Anglia. The debate was chaired by former Culture, Media and Sport Secretary, John Whittingdale MP who opened the evening in Portcullis House by saying that we’re all “wrestling with the impact of the internet”. 

For the motion 
Beeston was first up, describing the internet as “one of the most marvellous inventions ever conceived” and pointing to the “incalculable” value it provides for people and businesses: “It has led to improved communications, trade, development of technologies… it has democratised the world’s knowledge and information… [and] at it’s best, the internet promotes inclusivity and gives a voice.” 

Beeston argued that the ad funded model is the best way to maintain the internet’s diversity and impartiality, ensuring that content creators remain independent from Government intervention and are incentivised to keep making great quality content. 

When it comes to concerns about privacy and data use, Beeston said the industry is working to making great strides to improve matters. She added that when advertising is useful and inspiring, it’s welcomed by consumers. Rounding up, Beeston said: “A less diverse and partial internet landscape threatens the core of what makes the internet so marvellous today.”

Also arguing for the motion, Harling said that it’s in digital advertisers’ best interests to improve industry transparency, pointing to the “movements in place to change opacity” - from the IAB’s initiatives to JICWEBS - and arguing that ad industry doesn't get enough credit for its efforts to build a better online ecosystem. 

Harling argued that “the ad industry has realised that the notion of clicks is not the best way to track the success of a campaign”, resulting in a fall in clickbait content. Highlighting the power of the advertisers to instigate further change, she called on them to “vote with their wallets” when buying media. 

Against the motion
Rogerson opened the views against the motion, explaining that he was speaking on a “qualified basis… the point I oppose is the industrial targeting that has come to dominate advertising”. While he agrees that digital advertising helps to pay for quality journalism and has “freed editors from the shackles of wealthy owners”, he challenged the industry on inefficiency and opacity, loss of privacy and lack of freedom. 

He argued that the online ad ecosystem does not reward those that invest in premium content, saying that “advertisers are now chasing people around the web, regardless of how they view or what they watch… this undermines quality rather than rewarding it”. 

With ad fraud and data use also raised, Rogerson said that the ad funded ecosystem makes the web “less open, less tolerant and less rational”. 

Also taking a qualified stance, Bernal said that he is in favour of online advertising “but not the way it’s being done at the moment”. Unpicking the motion, he questioned: “What do you mean by advertising? Who is it best for? And what do we mean by free? Money? Autonomy? Freedom of speech?... I would argue [the internet] is currently neither free nor open.”

Conversely, Bernal’s contention was that “the advertising infrastructure depends on the internet not being free and not being open”, with each person having an individually tailored experience. “Is the internet free if you’re paying for it with your autonomy?” he asked. 

Views from the floor
Attendees then had the opportunity to share their views. Among those opposing the motion, accumulation of power, data opacity and lack of privacy were cited as reasons for an ad funded model to be abandoned. A TV licence-style set up and a blended model of advertising and subscription were both put forward as alternatives. 

However, the majority of people in the room favoured the motion. Contributors drew attention to the industry’s work to address the challenges our ad-funded model faces, while also highlighting the positive benefits of a free-to-access web - pointing to the fact that the alternative models suggested don’t keep the internet a financially free resource for people. 

From allowing diverse voices to find an audience, to fuelling the growth of a new Direct to Consumer market, the benefits of an ad-funded internet were highlighted by many. 

The vote 
Following a robust debate, the room came to a resounding verdict: Advertising is the best way to keep the internet free and open. “Ensuring that the internet is “available for the many, not just the few” is paramount, said IAB UK’s CEO Jon Mew, with research showing that 90% of people prefer having an ad-funded web than paying for content. “To build a sustainable future for digital advertising, we need to work collectively and the only way we can do that is by having debates like this,'' added Mew, wrapping up the evening. 

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